Elena Dorfman and I met on the art bus. We talked for about 20 minutes on the way to see a sculpture collection, and another 20 on the way back. I had seen her work before I saw her.
The museum that brought us together had purchased some of her photographs, part of a set called “Still Lovers”. When I first saw them, I thought that they were images of sculptures posed with actors, and that the realism of the sculptures being almost indistinguishable from the living actors was the point, and not much of a point at that. When I found out what they really were, I was impressed.
The photographs are of men who play with dolls. The dolls take the place of living women in their lives. Elena told me that most of the men decided to switch to dolls after a less than pleasant experience with a woman; a bad breakup, or a divorce. The synthetic women were expensive, (about $7,000) but not nearly as expensive as a divorce, or even dating can be. These men were lonely and didn’t want another woman to break their heart again, so they decided that imaginary lovers would be easier all the way around.
One of the most amazing things about Elena’s work is that she was able to find these men and gain their confidence, so that they would allow her to photograph them with their dolls. Most of the men didn’t let anyone know that they even had these dolls, but Elena is an artist, and artists can be interested in another person’s life in a way that is both flattering and safe. We are really curious about what we see, and since we are different ourselves, we tend to be accepting of differences.
I asked Elena if any of the men creeped her out when she went to photograph them, and she said that one man did, but it didn’t have anything to do with him having a doll, he was just creepy.
The dolls are “anatomically correct” (ha – like politically correct.) and of course one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, that these men bought the dolls was for sexual purposes. The dolls are specially designed for that. The men also bought clothes for their dolls. They went shopping and looked for the things that they thought would look best, the sexiest clothes maybe. I imagine that they probably brushed their doll’s hair, and probably talked to them too. Maybe they had names for the dolls – probably not the names of their ex-wives! Where did they keep the dolls when they weren’t playing with them? I didn’t think to ask Elena about that. It almost seems like an invasion of privacy to think about these things.
Elena asked them a lot of questions though, and there’s a neat book about her project. (You can find out about that on her website.) I had my reference librarian, Lou Ann, order the book for me through interlibrary loan. Lou Ann is so sweet, and she has helped me so much with my work that I’d like to use this occasion to say how much I appreciate her! Like me, she’s a caregiver for an aging parent, and when you’re doing that, you don’t get out much.
Lou Ann also collects dolls. When Elena’s book came, I showed it to Lou Ann and she was amazed. The photographs can be a little shocking. (Elena had told me that the book publishers had focused on the sensational aspect of her work) After Lou Ann got over the shock, she told me that she had a feeling of empathy for the men. She could understand something about their lives, and why they decided to do something that most people might not understand. That’s the amazing thing about art!
When I told Elena, in an email, about Lou Ann, she replied, “Your message was, as always, provocative and funny. You made me laugh out loud on the subway last night as I read it. I was very moved/touched by the story of your librarian and her seeing Still Lovers. I can almost picture her and her own dolls and it is that person - and the men in the photos - who I most relate to in some strange, lonely way. It was in homage to "that person" those photos were made.”
That’s why Elena is such a fabulous artist. She’s the real deal.
When we first talked about the men and their dolls, I wondered if these men had also played with dolls when they were children. Elena said she hadn’t thought to ask them that.
In our culture boys aren’t supposed to play with girl dolls. They can play with boy dolls as long as those dolls kill each other, & that’s ok. I had a doll when I was a child and my parents didn’t mind at all. As long as I was happy and stayed out of their hair, they were fine with it. When I got underfoot, Cebah would say, “Go play in the branch.” And I would. There weren’t any other kids around to play with - it was just me in the woods.
I don’t remember how I got the doll. I think one of my sisters gave it to me. It was a “troll”.
The troll was naked and had blue hair. I named it Bilbo, like the main character in The Hobbit, and I learned to sew making clothes for it out of felt. Cebah had showed me the places in between tree roots where elves and fairies lived, so that’s where I made little dwellings for Bilbo, with acorn cups for dishes, fuzzy mullein leaves for blankets, etc. I was going to take a pic of a troll doll that one of my great nieces or nephews left here, but Alf grabbed it from between the roots and made off with it.
Some years ago I stopped at Old Orabi, on the western-most of the Hopi mesas in Arizona. Old Orabi is the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America. The Hopis are so hospitable. A man invited me into his home, and showed me some of the katsina dolls he made. There was one doll that was just a little flat board, cut in a katsina shape and painted. It caught my eye. I asked about it and the man told me that his 6 yr old son had made it. I asked if his son would sell it to me and he said, “He’s at school now, but he would be so thrilled to sell his first katsina doll.” I bought the doll for $25. I found out later that the design is very ancient & that long ago all the katsinam were flat. The one I bought is the first katsina that a beginner makes, and that it represents the Mother of all the katsinam. It is always designed and colored exactly like this one; white, black, yellow, blue, red – I understand it. The katsinam are not made to play with, they are made to teach children about life. The dolls represent personified forces of nature, especially the ones that have to do with precipitation. Hopi land is desert, the people depend on corn, and so rain is very important. The katsinam are carved out of cottonwood roots because the cottonwood root is very adept at seeking out moisture, and that’s the same skill that the katsinam have.
At Pollacca, at the base of Second Mesa, I bought another katsina from a carver named Shirley Honie. It’s a Snow Maiden, an image of the katsina that brings precipitation in the form of snow.
Cebah, who makes accumulations of what she calls “cooterments”
has one of figurines and dolls, like this one which came from my dad’s homeplace.
The last time I saw Elena was at a pajama party. I made my costume out of a paper-like fabric used for covering tobacco beds. I took some magic markers with me and asked everyone I met to write their dreams on me. Elena made these photographs of me taking off my pajamas. When I saw the contact sheets they reminded me of a butterfly coming out of its chrysalid. That’s exactly how I feel these days, and that’s what Elena thought they looked like too.
I used to collect butterflies, when I was a kid. There were a lot more of them then. I remember a huge red clover field that our cousin Ralph had, down by the creek, with summer clouds floating over it, and thousands of swallowtail butterflies flying from blossom to blossom. I had a net and I was determined to catch one of every kind. I wouldn’t do it now, but then, I was on a mission.
And I did catch one of every kind except one – the Goatweed Butterfly.
The Goatweed Butterfly seldom comes down out of the treetops. It is fast, elusive, and when its wings are closed, it is perfectly camouflaged as a dead leaf. Open, the Goatweed is revealed as our only stunningly, startlingly red butterfly. I chased it all summer long. My dad even drove me on backroads through the county as I searched for it. I’m glad now that I didn’t catch it, but I never forgot how badly I wanted it. I loaned my extensive butterfly collection to our library, which was in a storefront in those days, and while it was on display in the library window, tiny ants came and ate all the bodies of the butterflies. I didn’t care. By then my interests had moved on.
When my friend Rob came for Thanksgiving, he brought a sack of Barbie dolls with him. I don’t know where he got them, but he thought they might come in handy. Sometime later I started thinking about the goatweed butterfly, and a painting I had made once of them, long since sold to a woman in Cincinnati. I make paintings because I really want to have them, and when they are sold, sometimes I make another version. So I decided to make another goatweed painting, but this time the butterfly would be made out of Barbies. I started by pulling off arms from two Barbies and attaching them to another one so that she had six. I duct-taped her legs together to make the butterfly’s abdomen, and used acrylic gel to fuse her hair into two antennae. I chopped up the other Barbie's hair, swabbed BB's body with acrylic medium and rolled her in the fuzz, coated her with paint, attached her compound eyes, and hung her upside down from the ceiling to dry. That was the only time I played with Barbies. A friend who happened to be visiting the studio that night said that watching me work on Butterfly Barbie was disturbing. I’ll admit it did remind me of John Fowles book, The Collector, the one that was ripped off to make the idiotic “Silence of the Lambs”. Hollywood never does the research - they think no one knows about Deathhead moths.
I cut a caption out of my copy of The Field Guide to the Butterflies
and pasted it under Butterfly Barbie:
“In all the work watch sharply for female butterflies laying eggs. When one is found watch her and get the eggs as they are laid, as well as the plant on which they are deposited. Finally, collect her too. She will probably lay more in captivity.”
Butterfly Barbie’s red goatweed style wings are pinned down under paper strips, just as the guide instructed. Finally, I put a wire screen over her, like a grid. I thought she was trapped beneath it.
But everyone who’s commented on Butterfly Barbie has said that they thought she was trying to get in.
(sketch for Butterfly Barbie, 2001)
Last night I was laying in my bed, listening to the far off heat lighting, waiting for the rain. It was too muggy for even a sheet. I was thinking about coming out of my cocoon, how the guy I’m sweet on has changed me. I feel ready to fly. I didn’t think twice about showing my body to Elena – her artist’s eye seems almost interchangeable with my own – but I feel shy and thrilled, almost terrified, to reveal myself to him for the first time.
I thought I’d end this reverie on dolls with a pic especially for another artist friend, Katherine, of Cebah’s donkey doll. It has an umbrella.